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Gaming: Self-esteem, Games and Macromedia Flash

I came across Self-esteem Games via an ABC News feed. I thought the title was referring to playing games (in the negative sense) with self-esteem, but what I found were online games designed to increase self-esteem. These games have been designed in Macromedia's Flash Player and make the claim...

"In a world-first, researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology have developed and tested computer games that can actually help people enhance their self-acceptance. Read on for brief facts concerning the studies that will be published in Psychological Science and the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology."

I know very little about game theory or the psychology of gaming. At the same time, I have played many games in my life: Go Fish!, Monopoly, Risk, Chess, Checkers, Cribbage, Euchre, Solitare, The Game of Life, Trivial Pursuit, Sorry, Mastermind, Battleship, Blackjack, Scrabble, Lawn Darts, Horseshoes, Tennis, Badminton, Football, Baseball, Basketball, Golf and so on. I've also played other kinds of games like hide the teacher's lesson plan, knock on the door and run - hide - and watch, set the paper bag of the bad stuff on fire at the doorstep - ring the doorbell on Halloween - and watch 'em stomp, play the music just a little too fast for the dancers, improvise unexpected modulations for the vocalist, and others that I won't further embarass myself by mentioning.

I guess a simplistic way of understanding games would be to say that they are a coordinated set of strategies designed to attain a goal that are carried out within the confines of a set of rules. Or a game might be a way of playing - amusement, a pastime, a diversion, and possibly a kind of prank. On the digital scene, it's quite clear the game systems and online games are an extremely propserous market. I sometimes see young people playing football, not outside with other people, but as a solitary activity with a machine. Seems like an odd thing to do, but far less bizzare than the relentless scenes of digital madness that are popular.

If there is a transferrable connection between game design and the development of self-esteem, then I'm all for it. Many of the games today seem immersed in violence and gore while designers simultaneously deny any ill effects on those that use them. It's reasonable to assume that if a game can help improve self-esteem and self-acceptance then another game must also have the potential to instill other qualities like violence and malevolence. It is just as reasonable to assume that games designed to have postive effects may not.

David Cronenberg once said that an artist is a person who puts ideas out into the world and they often come back to him/her in ways they never could have imagined. This is good advice to keep in mind, and has a close resemblance to Marshall McLuhan's warning that, "The Medium is the Message/Massage." Like curriculum, a game (digital or not) can be viewed as a form of technology.

Playing Grow Your Chi, EyeSpy: The Matrix, Wham! Self-Esteem Conditioning, essentially involved me in clicking on images of faces that were postive while not clicking on images of faces that were negative. Try Wham! and at the end you will read:

"Good Work! You just created associations between yourself and acceptance. Our research indicates that this increases self-esteem."

Essentially what happens is every time you click on your name or birthday (this was entered in to game before play began) you received facial expressions that were positive, while other names and dates were negative (or something less than positive) facial expressions. One of the problems I had was that I didn't put my real name or birthday in so I think I built someone else's self esteem - or was it the avatar of self-esteem?

Kidding around aside, the idea of building a game that is designed to promote positive self-esteem is an area we are sorely lacking in. We are so immersed in negative images from game systems, news media and the entertainment industry that we have numbed ourself to the reality they portray. It's not that we don't understand this or haven't studied it enough, we just seem to be unable to collectively change it. Why? Actually, I don't think analyzing the reasons why we haven't changed our obsession with violence matters, we know that we need to change and that's enough.

The real challenge for a game that is designed to promote positive self-esteem, or anything positive for that matter, is transference - how can (if it can) what is "learned" in the game system survive in our everday experiences? It sounds to me like a designed to promote self-esteem certainly can't hurt and is refreshing break from the boring leagues of inane game designers out there, but how far can flashing images on a computer screen really go? Is the web becoming a big Flash? By using only positive reinforcement are we tacitly implying that we should merely avoid the negative things in life?

Since the research has not yet been released, it is too soon to say whether or not the idea of Self-esteem Games can transfer into everyday experiences in a sustainable way. The games available online are, of course, meant to be examples of a more complete version, not the entire product.

Life is not a game or a simulation and is far more complex and unpredictable than rolling a pair of dice or habitually pointing and clicking on a game controller. There is a lot more to self-esteem than psychology and gaming. On the other hand, there are rule-like elements embedded inside the thing we call culture. It seems reasonable to assume that there might be some correlation between the experiences we have while playing games and the things we do in our lives. If this is the case, we might not only have the introduction of games that are beneficial, but we may also be able to put a mountain of responsibility and accountability on the violence mongers that design games as well.

The benefits of game applications remain, for me, illusive. I tend to agree with Lisa Galarneau :

Laurel waxed pessimistic about educational games. "I have never seen a good educational game," she said, "It's crap for 30 years." Public education does not teach young people to meaningfully exercise personal agency, to think critically, to use their voices, to engage in discourse, or to be good citizens. We don't need computer games in the schools, said Laurel, we need "affordances for young people to exercise meaningful personal agency." We need to engage in a kind of discourse and critique that can be make them creative, culture makers, and future citizens.

My personal experience places me in agreement. Back in the early 1990's the school I worked in had every educational computer game going - too many. Our teachers used and tested all of them (computer literacy games, math games, history games, etc., etc.) - although some mildly interesting things occurred, none proved durable and the educational value, in our experience, was at best questionable in spite of the claims made by the companies producing them. The games were retired to The Museum of Expensive but Unnecessary Resources and our teachers quickly returned to better practices. Safe to say games have developed since then have changed, but games in general tend to lack durability and sustainability. They also tend to be closed systems based on pre-determined algorithms and rules - they just don't transfer well into real life. Why not start with real life?

I have also helped students with self-esteem and self-acceptance issues that were beyond what we might think of as "low." It would never have occurred to me, nor does it now, to use a game as a means to provide help.

Further, games do not promote Brenda Laurel's important notion of personal agency. A game, by its very nature, is an impersonal agent - it has no intelligence. It's not too much of a stretch to find parallels between a game design and curriculum design - both impose a pre-determined set of rules and function as impersonal agents on the people using them. A game can be a curriculum in sheep's clothing and a curriculum can be a game in sheep's clothing. Relevant and motivating learning environments can be provided in the complete absence of games.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges faced by real teachers (I say "real" for anyone that hasn't actually been on the front lines with a variety of age groups cannot fully appreciate this), and that is how to broker a relevant and meaningful relationship between two opposed forces - a centralized demand from an impersonal agency and the natural human demand for personal agency.

Now I'll contradict myself. Perhaps the answer is to play a game on the impersonal agencies themselves. Although a Network Learning Environment has nothing to do with a game, it has been demonstrated that they can have a powerful effect on reducing and eliminating impersonal approaches to learning. The problem is, once they start challeging exisiting positions of authority, another kind of game can occur.

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Hi Lisa,

I can be convinced otherwise too:-) I completely agree with you about focusing on the positive aspects to be had. The "warning" side of things via McLuhan, Postman, Mumford, and many others is something I've always respected and paid close attention to, but as you can tell from my life's work it isn't something that drives me. There are people that spend to much time on the negative side of the equation just as there are people that fail to fully take the downside into account. Like so many things in life, it's a question of balance.

The idea of players being co-creators of the game as well as "active participation, problem-based collaboration, scaffolding and yes, authentic experience" (especially the last item) gets to the core of the issue for me. If we can articulate the "something unique" that would indeed be fun. The way you have described it reminded me of the work we did in Madeira with Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects.

Here's where I'm stuck - part of what I wrestle with is why create games when there are other opportunities that have more potential for a deeper impact. I remain open, but I am just not convinced that games are the right thing to focus on. This may be my own bias toward network learning environments coming out, as well as lack of knowledge of the potential of games.

And, of course, I could be wrong.

I appreciate you helping me along with this and look forward to learning more!


I agree that there are many violent images in the media regarding games, but I think a lot of this is the same thing that happens whenever a new technology is introduced. As Dmitri Williams aptly puts it, ' when a new medium shows up we worry about what it's going to take the place of, what's it's going to do to us, and whether it's going to make us unhealthy...'. Video games are no exception, but like the Internet, or books, or cities, there are good aspects and bad ones.

I choose to focus on the good ones.

Some really amazing things are happening in massively multiplayer game (MMOG) environments, for instance. Because of their social nature, I do think they are places where learners can exercise a great deal of personal agency. Players co-create the game (in Papert's 'producer' sense), really, in a very substantial way. (There's great stuff on the Terra Nova blog about the complexities of the economic systems, etc.) Now they're not educational per se, but a tremendous amount of learning happens in them. Unfortunately, we don't yet have much research, though there are a couple of people like Constance Steinkuehler who are looking at them, particularly in terms of the social dynamics that contribute to learning.

For me the key is figuring out what games can accomplish in terms of learning that can't happen in other contexts... or better put, I suppose, what it is about game environments that are relevant and motivating, and can those things be transferred to other learning environments or not? I suspect that it would be difficult to recreate the same level of relevancy and motivation as I believe something unique happens in game environments that has to do with active participation, problem-based collaboration, scaffolding and yes, authentic experience. I'm not sure that level of sophistication and engagement is necessarily possible in a non-game or non-project oriented collaborative environment.

But perhaps I can be convinced otherwise!


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